Collaborative spirit and a community of music

Confession: I love The Sing-Off. I am not a fan of the term ‘fan’ (it makes objects out of both appreciator and appreciated), but if I’m to be called a fan of anything, let it be The Sing-Off. Those who follow me on Twitter may have picked up on this over the past few days, ever since NBC announced the show’s cancellation. (…or any time I watched an episode last fall, for that matter.) Thanks, to them, for putting up with me; of course, many of my followers being space tweeps, they understand seriously nerding out about something they love. They’ll light the Twittersphere ablaze if anything beautiful and important in a space program is at risk, which is what got me to pay real attention to Twitter in the first place.

But I digress. I want you, chers lecteurs, to understand why I love The Sing-Off, because this isn’t like any other show I’ve ever loved–not like The Pretender, not like Firefly, not even like its own closest (in a way) competitor, The Voice.* Unlike every other singing competition I have seen, and in spite of its own competitive trappings, The Sing-Off seems at heart to harbor a collaborative spirit.

The judges are not producers or mere critics. They are beloved and respected musicians in their own rights, whose enthusiasm for their art and for a cappella shines and bubbles and sighs and shouts at every turn. They are–dare I say it?–nerds about music. And unabashed, incorrigible nerds they are at that. How else could Ben Folds discuss, on air, the “rubbing seconds” in a performance, along with other technical aspects that surely he knows go over the heads of a good portion of the audience? How else could Shawn Stockman let himself go on a flight of fancy like the one he took after a performance of “one of the cheesiest songs ever created”? That flight deserves quoting:

If I can be cheesy for a second, it felt like I, like, sprouted wings and I just jumped off the Grand Canyon, and just flew away, and just looked at rivers, and deer, and birds, and other birds, and I was saying “hi!” [waves]…

And the result is that the groups actually get some substantive feedback on their performances, while we the viewers get a chance to peek inside the practice room and see what it’s like in there, to learn about how full and complex music is made with nothing but the human voice, and to see raw passion on both sides of the judges’ bench.

After Delilah schools you on loyalty, Ben’ll school you on the chromatic scale.

I’ve always loved the sound of a cappella music. Take 6, Acappella, and Vocal Union got plenty of air time on my family’s 13-hour road trips to visit family in Kansas; Chanticleer and the King’s Singers were more at home on my father’s vintage stereo; and as a kid I heard Acappella and Chanticleer live in concert. So hearing groups like Committed, the Whiffenpoofs, and Groove for Thought in the second season of the show felt like coming home. As for the vocal tricks of a group like Pentatonix or the harmonies of Afro Blue, I nearly fell out of my chair more than once (and the judges jumped out of theirs a few times, themselves); I don’t do that lightly. Promise. And I still lack words to describe those moments.

But given my Mennonite background, listening alone was never enough for many of the people I’ve known. I was never at the center of it myself (too much a choir voice, mine, and too timid, me), but cousins and classmates formed a cappella groups at college, and when members moved and a group broke up, they found other singers to connect with and formed new groups, and the cycle went on. A cappella as I’ve seen it is a community all its own, where the most important thing is to keep making music–wherever you are, be it a big stage or a quiet stairwell, and whoever you are with, music runs in your blood and you can’t help but keep finding ways to let it out.

The Sing-Off gave us a glimpse of this community, as people who had barely met came together for the show and made something almost magical. We saw it in the way members of past groups, who may have been competing against each other one year, united from all parts of the country the next and returned with performances more amazing than before. We even got to see brother bring brother into the fold. This is how the a cappella world works, forming ripples and eddies in the river of vocal performance. I know of nothing else like it, and I want to keep watching from my little vantage here on the periphery.

Besides, they gave us some damn good music.

Want to save The Sing-Off? There’s a petition that has received over 14,000 signatures; there’s a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter; and you can use the hashtag #SaveTheSingOff to join the conversation.


* I should mention this: It saddens me to see how some people are showing their support of The Sing-Off by denigrating The Voice. That’s not the point here; it shouldn’t have to be one or the other. They are very different shows, with different focuses, and they are both wonderful. They share a major strength in that they both focus on promoting singers for great singing, regardless of genre, and they encourage unique styles instead of some formulaic ‘right’ way to sing. Think about the variety of genres in The Voice’s final four: a soulful R&B artist, a brilliant operatic singer (opera! I mean, opera, on popular network television!), a gravelly-voiced rocker, and a jack of all trades whose personal niche shaped and reshaped itself before our eyes. The Voice, like The Sing-Off, features experienced performers as judges (and, uniquely, as coaches). I love The Voice, too, and I want it to stick around a good long while.

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